I puritani head

Aidan Smith (Gualtiero Valton) David Kempster (Riccardo Forth) Wojtek Gierlach (Giorgio Valton) and WNO Chorus. Pictures Bill Cooper.

I Puritani

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


AS a wise old bird observed to me, when we bumped into each other high up in the cheaper seats of the Hippodrome, 'It's ages since WNO last did a Bellini; and must be at least as long since Birmingham heard a note of Bellini.'

There was a hint of censure in his voice, and indeed he would be right to object.

Whereas Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), four years older than Bellini, managed over 60 operas, seven of them: Alfred the Great (1823), Elizabeth at Kenilworth, Anne Boleyn (1829 and 1830), Mary Stuart and Lucia di Lammermoor (both 1835), and so on, set in England or Scotland, Vincente Bellini (1801-1837) clocked up a mere ten stage works, his golden years spanning 1827-33, largely in his twenties.

Yet what we have is pure gold - and that includes the Bellini operas that are less well known.

I Puritani, his last (Paris, January 1835) is one of the more celebrated, along with Norma, which has travelled well worldwide, and his Romeo and Juliet opera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi.

La Sonnambula, one of four first staged in Milan (three at La Scala, but this one not), was one of seven (or seven and a half if you include the revision of the early, possibly immature Bianca e Fernando) for which he received libretti from the prolific Felice Romani, who launching in 1813 (the year of Verdi's birth) went on to furnish libretti for Donizetti, Mercadante and even, just once indirectly, for Verdi (Un Giorno di Regno, 1840).

The arias in I Puritani are simply wonderful; yet the signs were there from the start. Struley's bass aria in Act I of Adelson e Salvini, his first opera, somehow has a kind of haunting quality you don't find anywhere. When he gets to Norma ('Casta diva'), he is penning arias that are simply world-beating. There are those who would argue that, of the Italian greats of that time, the shortest-lived was, musically, palpably the best; certainly the folk-derived oompah accompaniments that can delight or irrititate in Verdi are nowhere to be heard. Hurrah, I say.

Not textually however. For I Puritani, shorn of the grElviraeat Romani, Bellini had to make do with Count Carlo Pepoli, an Italian exile in Paris. and a wordsmith of weak sensitivity, thin vocabulary and scant talent. One almost wished WNO would switch the surtitles off.

As the composer once put it, he deplored 'the way in which strong theatrical situations were undermined by the poor dialogue, the repetitive commonplace and sometimes stupid turns of phrase'. One could almost imagine Balfe turning down this script.

The music, meanwhile, is constantly inventing, forever introducing accompaniments that have the power to surprise, has a cheeky vigour yet also a slow-unfolding poignancy that moves as certainly as his Italian predecessors - one thinks of Pergolesi (his celebrated Soprano-alto-led Stabat mater), or Lotti's moving Crucifixus, or Monteverdi himself, whose ideas for variety are far ahead, by and large, of his 19th century successors.

Rosa Feola who sang the role of Elvira in earlier perfornances

All three of those composers are soaked in chromaticism. Bellini isn't, by and large, yet he achieves a plangency akin to if he did; at times, even Purcell, or his contemporaries, come to mind. We were lucky that that most shrewd of interpreters of Italian opera, Carlo Rizzi, now a regular at La Scala, Milan, was back in WNO's pit here at the Hippodrome. It would be difficult to imagine a better, or more gloriously thoughtful reading of Puritani. With the quality of Rizzi comes the quality he inspires in the orchestral players. With this score in his hands, we were all in seventh heaven.

Opera - (or theatre-) goers incline to heave a sigh when announcements of substitutions are made before the start. I don't, mainly because time and again one is delighted by what comes instead.

I went to hear Britten's Death in Venice in, of all places, Norwich two decades ago and you could feel the billow of disappointment when it was announced that Robert Tear was indisposed. Instead we got one of the most marvellous interpretations of Mann's von Aschenbach I will ever see, from tenor John Graham-Hall, still a young singer, offering a kind of dirty mac hapless reading which (with his wonderful learning of the arias, or rather unending, plainsong-like arioso) may be as good as I shall ever see.

Here we acquired, instead of the great Barry Banks, Alessandro, who brought massive urgency to the role of the Catholic (i.e. Royalist) Lord Arthur Talbot, the young lover, deploying an almost painful-sounding yet highly effective high tenor for Talbot's high tessitura that verges on yelps in Bellini's endlessly dramatic music.

Even now I can hear much the same as I listen to Salvini's 'Oh! Quante amare lagrime!' and later 'Ah! Se non vuoi, mio ben' in that first opera that bears his name, armed (and enriched) with quite a wealth of Mozartian recitative - yet was never performed in a major house in the composer's lifetime: rather, the 23-year-old student composer heard and saw his work at the Naples Conservatoire, in 1825.

A blast of Weber-like hunting horns always cheers the cockles, and here too (recurring later) they got the show splendidly on the road. Actually, surprisingly given the above, there was just a hint of weak coordination during this overture: possibly between sections, possibly within them.

It was the only weak moment (if it was so) that we heard all evening. Though clearly in the genre opera seria, this was clearly an instance of melodramma, as much of Bellini is, and I suppose also a proportion of Verdi.

Bellini can manage it well - La Sonnambula is good evidence of this and the heroine here, Elvira Walton, has more than a short attack of depressive near-madness that in its way matches the 'madness' and detachment of the sleepwalking Amina, and more obviously the 'mad' Lucia di Lammermoor in Donizetti's take on Walter Scott's novel, then very much in fashion on the continent as well as in Britain - hence all these English-located operas (Emilia di Liverpool is one of the more memorable titles). ‘Madness' is indeed the actual title of WNO's autumn season this time round.

Bellini has a marvellous gift for writing not just impossibly high for tenors,Riccardo and Bruno but enchantingly low for what were then called contraltos, and indeed often enough for sopranos (Norma is a classic instance; he even tried to alter Elvira to a mezzo in a drafted second version of Puritani, never used). This can make all the difference both to solo aria and recitative, and to ensembles, a few of which dotted round (sometimes just two parts) maintain the variety.

David Kempster (Riccardo Forth) and Simon Crosby Buttle (Bruno Robertson)

A famous quartet here fared well thanks to Rizzi's intelligence in people, voice and balance management. Debuting designer Leslie Travers' pretty much empty stage seemed weakly conceived: there is a case for thinning down the bric-a-brac of the kind of early stagings Wagner, for one, suffered in mid-19th century, or indeed much the same thing at Covent Garden between the wars.

But all was left to the helmeted 'Cromwell's men'; the reason Annilese Miskimmon's bare-staged production worked rather well was because the Northern Ireland-born director (perhaps abetted by Choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones) moved the men's chorus, and then full chorus, around (constantly) into shapes that sort of 'furnished' the stage - compare Richard Jones's Euryanthe at Glyndebourne some seasons ago (although there everybody walked backwards, a kind of Monty Pythonesque experience for the intent audience); Jones also used elements of monochrome, and in a way Leslie Travers' costuming here had a similar kind of effect. Weber, incidentally, is one of those composers Bellini surely absorbed, in orchestration as well as aria construction. Alas, both were short-lived.

It's interesting, too, that Wagner was one of those who chose to write about Bellini, at the time when he was seeking influences (Meyerbeer, etc.) for his own early to mid-period operas, especially the Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and perhaps even the bigger canvas of Rienzi.

As to the solo singing, it was of the kind of highest order which Welsh National Opera is so capable and shrewd at deploying. How could one dislike any of them? Home grown singer Sian Meinir, hailing from Dolgellau, showed precisely the rich mezzo (or contralto) tones that so enrich Bellini operas, as Queen Henrietta Maria, youngest daughter of the assassinated Bourbon Henri IV of France ('Paris is worth a Mass'), or Henry of Navarre: she was six months old when the killer's blow struck, in a Sarajevo-like assault).

Married to Charles I aged 15-16, she went on to be one of Van Dyck's best-known and most elegant sitters. How she turns up here chez Bellini's the Waltons' is not absolutely clear; but then Rupert of the Rhine, Charles's nephew, had a habit of popping up all over the place. Elvira was sung here by Linda Richardson, taking over from Rosa Feola, and delighting at every turn. The family head, Lord Walter Walton (Gualterio Valton), was nicely sung by Aidan Smith, perhaps a fraction young for the role.


But the plums of this rich cake of a performance were a baritone and a bass. David Kempster, achieving an incredible poignancy as Elvira's Roundhead admirer (not quite lover), Riccardo Forth, who longs to win her and wed her, but loses out to a Cavalier brought emotional strength to this rewarding production which one would have to say owed something to sympathetic direction, yet much to his own deep-reaching talents.

Kempster has come on miles since his profoundly impressive young person's lead role two decades back. He strikes me as a singer, and a presence, of international standing. He was previously WNO's Iago; now the continent's advanced houses should be queuing up for him; and I see no reason why David Pountney and his team should not take it on themselves to assist him, by promoting him, in this onward progress.

Kempster was utterly glorious in baritone-bass duet (note the Pergolesi touch here too: Bellini is a master of pairing voices that are close but not identical, and squeezing deep emotions from them) with the elder statesman of the family, the retired General George Walton (Giorgio Valton), easily the best role and best voice of the evening, the Pole Wojtek Gierlach, making his WNO debut.

Basses are not that common: Robert Lloyd awesomely ruled the roost (Verdi's Grand Inquisitor, etc.) here in England. But today Poland seems to be producing them in droves. English Touring Opera, for instance, has already benefited recently from a baritone with marked bass qualities: the marvellous Piotr Lempa.

But Gierlach seemed to have everything: a quality of tone that shines through even the lowest of notes - and much of the sympathetic Giorgio's tessitura is quite amazingly low: again we find Bellini, if not the innovator, the constant vocal risk-taker.

The original Giorgio was the great bass Luigi Lablache, born three years after the premiere of Mozart's Magic Flute, 'a deep bass of uncommon force and power', in the tradition of Mozart's magnificent Benucci (creator of Figaro, Leporello and Guglielmo): a memorable Oroveso (in Norma; a role Gierlach has also made his own, in Lisbon) and Henry VIII (in Donizetti's Anna Bolena); a hoot as the first-ever Don Pasquale; and a massive hit for two decades with London audiences, dubbed 'the greatest dramatic singer of his time'.

Gierlach, who not so long ago also sang Bellini (La Sonnambula, in lakeside St. Gallen, Switzerland), has one of the most rewarding and exciting voices to emerge from any Italian opera production I've reviewed in the past ten years. Yet again, one sees the daring and the empathy that make the Bellini experience so really, truly special; Gierlach supplied a voice to match it, and surely one to equal the great Lablache. I hope I've managed to make clear, fractionally, how an opera with a limp and lousy libretto can emerge as such a transcendent experience.

Roderic Dunnett



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